One of the comments often aimed at those such as myself, who write about famous vegetarians of the past--and how many of them were paragons of virtue who practiced nonviolence and compassion - is the following: "But wasn't Hitler a vegetarian?" one such example began when in 1991 I wrote to The New York Times commenting on the vegetarianism of Isaac Bashevis Singer and how this important feature of Singer's life had been glossed over in his recent obituary. I had interviewed Singer for my book Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes, and he had been vehement on the issue of respect for animals.
Two weeks later, under the headline: "The Vegetarian Road to World Peace," the Times published a reply to my letter from the well-known author and New Yorker essayist Janet Malcolm. It is worth quoting in full: "Rynn Berry's fine letter about Isaac Bashevis Singer's vegetarianism reminded me of the comment Mr. Singer made at a luncheon to a woman who noticed approvingly that he had refused to eat the meat course, and who said that her health had improved when she, too, gave up meat. 'I do it for the health of the chickens,' Mr. Singer said.
"Mr. Singer's belief, quoted by Mr. Berry, 'that everything connected with vegetarianism is of the highest importance, because there will never be any peace in the world so long as we eat animals,' may have puzzled readers. What does eating or not eating meat have to do with world peace?
"Milan Kundera gives us the answer on page 289 of The Unbearable Lightness of Being :
'True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test (which lies deeply buried from view) consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: the animals. And in this respect, mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.'"
Janet Malcolm's response to my letter drew a reply from another Times reader. Under the headline "What About Hitler?" the writer castigated Ms. Malcolm for implying that the universal acceptance of vegetarianism will bring about world peace because, 'Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian all his life and wrote extensively on the subject."
To me, this response was all too predictable; for I have yet to give a talk on vegetarianism in which the tasteless question of Hitler's vegetarianism has not been raised. Invariably, at every bookstore signing, at every lecture, on every phone-in talk show, at least one person has asked me half-mockingly: "Is Hitler in your book?" or "Why didn't you put Hitler in your book?"
Following the latest letter in September, 1991, The New York Times published two rejoinders to this question. Under the headline, "Don't Put Hitler Among the Vegetarians," the correspondent (Richard Schwartz, author of Judaism and Vegetarianism ) pointed out that Hitler would occasionally go on vegetarian binges to cure himself of excessive sweatiness and flatulence, but that his main diet was meat-centered. He also cited Robert Payne, Albert Speer, and other well-known Hitler biographers, who mentioned Hitler's predilection for such nonvegetarian foods as Bavarian sausages, ham, liver, and game. Furthermore, it was argued, if Hitler had been a vegetarian, he would not have banned vegetarian organizations in Germany and the occupied countries; nor would he have failed to urge a meatless diet on the German people as a way of coping with Germany's World War II food shortage.
Under the headline, "He Loved His Squab," another correspondent cited a passage from a cookbook that had been written by a European chef, Dione Lucas, who was an eyewitness to Hitler's meat-eating. In her Gourmet Cooking School Cookbook (1964), Lucas, drawing on her experiences as a hotel chef in Hamburg during the 1930s, remembered being called upon quite often to prepare Hitler's favorite dish, which was not a vegetarian one. "I do not mean to spoil your appetite for stuffed squab," she writes, "but you might be interested to know that it was a great favorite with Mr. Hitler, who dined at the hotel often. Let us not hold that against a fine recipe though."
Not even the august New York Times has a staff large enough to verify all the facts in the letters published in the Letters to the Editor section; so I decided to look up the specific passages in Payne's biography of Hitler and Dione Lucas' The Gourmet Cooking School Cookbook that cast doubt on Hitler's vegetarianism. Sure enough, Robert Payne, whose biography of Hitler, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, has been called definitive, scotches the rumor that Hitler might have been a vegetarian. According to Payne, Hitler's vegetarianism was a fiction made up by his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to give him the aura of a revolutionary ascetic, a Fascistic Gandhi, if you will. It is worth quoting from Payne's biography directly:
"Hitler's asceticism played an important part in the image he projected over Germany. According to the widely believed legend, he neither smoked nor drank, nor did he eat meat or have anything to do with women. Only the first was true. He drank beer and diluted wine frequently, had a special fondness for Bavarian sausages and kept a mistress, Eva Braun, who lived with him quietly in the Berghof. There had been other discreet affairs with women. His asceticism was fiction invented by Goebbels to emphasize his total dedication, his self-control, the distance that separated him from other men. By this outward show of asceticism, he could claim that he was dedicated to the service of his people.
"In fact, he was remarkably self-indulgent and possessed none of the instincts of the ascetic. His cook, an enormously fat man named Willy Kanneneberg, produced exquisite meals and acted as court jester. Although Hitler had no fondness for meat except in the form of sausages, and never ate fish, he enjoyed caviar. He was a connoisseur of sweets, crystallized fruit and cream cakes, which he consumed in astonishing quantities. He drank tea and coffee drowned in cream and sugar. No dictator ever had a sweeter tooth."1
So there we have it: Hitler doted on Bavarian sausages and caviar. Not even the loosest definition of vegetarianism could be stretched to fit these gastronomic abominations. Yet, because nonvegetarians often have an elastic definition of what constitutes a vegetarian, they think that people like Hitler who eat fish, pigeons, and sausages are vegetarians. By this criterion, even jackals and hyenas, who eat fruits and vegetables between kills, could be classified as vegetarians. Dr. Roberta Kalechofsky makes a similar point in her essay entitled "Hitler's Vegetarianism: A Question of How You Define Vegetarianism" :
"Biographical materials about Hitler's alleged or qualified vegetarianism are contradictory. He was sometimes described as a 'vegetarian,' but his fondness for sausages, caviar, and occasionally ham was well known. On the other hand, on the basis of foods he was known to like or eat, 'red meat' is never listed. His alleged vegetarianism was often coupled with a description of him as an ascetic individual. For example, the April 14, 1996, Sunday magazine edition of The New York Times, celebrating its 100th anniversary, included this early description of Hitler's diet in an article previously published on May 30, 1937, 'At Home With The Fuhrer.'
"'It is well known that Hitler is a vegetarian and does not drink or smoke. His lunch and dinner consist, therefore, for the most part of soup, eggs, vegetables and mineral water, although he occasionally relishes a slice of ham and relieves the tediousness of his diet with such delicacies as caviar ...'2
"The New York Times definition of 'vegetarian,' which included foods such as ham is quite a stretch of definition of 'vegetarian.'"3
Quite a strech indeed! Even as early as 1911, the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (one of the most widely consulted reference works) defined vegetarianism as follows "Vegetarianism, a comparatively modern word, which came into use about the year 1847, as applied to the use of foods from which fish, flesh, and fowl are excluded."4
So there really is no excuse for an editor of The New York Times writing in the 1930's to be so misinformed as to have called Hitler a vegetarian.
Hitler did not describe himself as a "vegetarian" until 1937. It may have been prompted by an emotional response to the death of his niece who had been in love with him and who may have taken her own life. That at least was the thinking of Hitler's close friend Frau Hess: "He had made such remarks before and had toyed with the idea of vegetarianism, but this time, according to Frau Hess, he meant it. From that moment on, Hitler never ate another piece of meat except for liver dumplings."5 About this passage, which is cited in John Toland's biography of Hitler, Dr. Kalechofsky comments: "This is consistent with other descriptions of Hitler's diet, which always included some form of meat, whether ham, sausages, or liver dumplings."6
Furthermore, one could infer that Hitler was not a true vegetarian from the poor state of his health. In his letter to the Times, Richard Schwartz mentioned that Hitler had suffered from excessive sweatiness and flatulence. Besides those maladies, he also suffered from rotting teeth, acute gastric disorders, hardening of the arteries (a typical meat-eater's disease), a liver ailment,7 and incurable heart disease (progressive coronary sclerosis).8 His doctors gave him heavy doses of drugs that included a 10 percent cocaine solution,9 strychnine-based pills,10 and injections of pulverized bull's testicles.11 Certainly, he didn't enjoy the robust health that has come to be associated with vegetarianism; on the contrary, his symptoms were those associated with a heavy intake of animal foods.
In the course of doing the fact checking in the Hitler biographical literature, I couldn't help noticing how passionate Hitler was in his denunciation of the evils of tobacco. He said, "I wouldn't offer a cigar or cigarette to anyone I admired since I would be doing them a bad service. It is universally agreed that nonsmokers live longer than smokers. and during sickness have more resistance."12 In fact, he had a standing offer of a gold watch for anyone within his circle who would forswear tobacco. To his mistress, Eva Braun, however, he gave an ultimatum: "Either give up smoking or me."13 It struck me that if Hitler had been a bona fide vegetarian, he would have been as outspoken against flesh-eating as he was against smoking, but I searched in vain for any such diatribe. Certainly, there was no standing offer of a gold watch for giving up meat-eating; nor did he give Eva Braun the ultimatum" "Give up meat-eating or me."
Finally, I decided to check the reference to Hitler's favorite dish in Dione Lucas's The Gourmet Cooking School Cookbook. It's worth noting that Dione Lucas was a sort of precursor of the popular television "French" chef, Julia Childe. One of the first to open a successful cooking school in the US, Lucas was also one of the first chefs to popularize French Cuisine on television in the 1950s and 60s. During the 1930s, prior to her coming to the U.S., she had worked as a chef at a hotel in Hamburg, where Adolf Hitler was one of her regular customers. On one of my book hunting forays, I found a copy of her Gourmet Cooking School Cookbook in a second-hand bookshop. Blowing off the dust and cobwebs that had settled on its covers, I opened it and turned to page 89. There, as plain as the Chaplinesque mustache on the Fuhrer's face, was Hitler's favorite recipe.
"I learned this recipe when I worked as a chef before World War II, in one of the large hotels in Hamburg, Germany. I do not mean to spoil your appetite for stuffed squab, but you might be interested to know that it was a great favorite with Mr. Hitler, who dined at the hotel often. Let us not hold that against a fine recipe though."14
Almost as revealing as the opening paragraph was the one that followed it: "One of the great nuisances about eating squab is the dozens of tiny bones you must contend with for every morsel of flesh you get. By the time you have finished, your plate looks like a charnel house, you are exhausted, and there is a lingering suspicion that the game was not worth the candle."15 Seated in his Berlin bunker, gripping the 7.65 Walther pistol that would end his life, Hitler must have echoed Lucas's sentiments as he surveyed the ruins of his Reich--the charnel house that was Europe, the physical and mental exhaustion and the sense that the game was not worth the candle. It's all there--the fall of "the thousand year Reich" in a dish of squab!
It is ironic that people should be so willing to gloss over the truth about Isaac Bashevis Singer's absolute commitment to the welfare of animals, yet be so willing to believe a myth about Hitler's vegetarianism. It is also ironic that my letter to the editor about Isaac Bashevis Singer's vegetarianism touched off a chain of letters that ended by exploding the myth of Hitler's vegetarianism. Of course, there is no cogent reason why this myth should have embarrassed a movement that contributes so much to "the health of chickens," as Singer once phrased his concern, the health of humans and the ecological health of the planet. Nonetheless, it doesn't hurt to have it finally settled on the record that Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci, Tolstoy, Shaw, Gandhi, and Singer were vegetarians, but that Mr. Hitler--who liked his pigeons stuffed and roasted--was not.
Written by Rynn Berry, author of Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes and Food for The Gods.
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